James Macpherson, "Fragment of a Northern Tale" (1773)

James Macpherson (1736–1796)

1.        James Macpherson was a Scottish writer, poet and antiquary, who became notorious for his “translations” of the third-century Gaelic bard Ossian. Macpherson claimed to have collected the verses, primarily from oral sources, on tours of the Scottish Highlands. The Ossian poems were published in the early 1760s. The question of their authenticity soon sparked a heated debate. Nonetheless, even some of Macpherson’s fiercest detractors could not but acknowledge the poetic craftsmanship of the poems, and they were praised for their invocation of sentiment and the sublime.

2.        In a fairly recent article, James Porter has assessed the wealth of critical investigative work into the sources and traditions that the Ossian poems relied on. He comes to the conclusion that Macpherson cannot be called an outright forger: what he did was to “adapt genuine material, arranging it into a pattern that fitted current ideas of epic poetry, ideas that were also moving taste away from neoclassical models toward a sensibility of feeling”. [1] 

3.        Indeed, the Edinburgh professor Hugh Blair, a prolific supporter of Macpherson, wrote in A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763) that Ossian’s warrior code was characterized by “tenderness, and even delicacy of sentiment, greatly predominant over fierceness and barbarity”. This he contrasted with the violence of Ragnar Lodbrog’s Death Song, from which he translated a large extract. In fact, he purports that turning to Ossian after reading the Norse poem was “like passing from a savage desart, into a fertile and cultivated country”. [2]  Nonetheless, one of Ossian’s fiercest detractors, Malcolm Laing, attacked Macpherson for imitating Norse poetics, even to the extent that Ossian’s phrase “hawks of heaven” was lifted from Blair’s translation of the Death Song. [3] 

4.        In translating the purported Gaelic verses into English, Macpherson chose a high-flown rhythmic prose. Intentionally, it was a similar style Thomas Percy chose for the translation of his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry. In the introduction to this small anthology, he acknowledges the success of Macpherson’s translation as a driving force for his own publication: “It would be as vain to deny, as it is perhaps impolitic to mention, that this attempt is owing to the success of the ERSE [i.e. Scots- Gaelic] fragments”. [4] 

Fragment of a Northern Tale (1773)

1.        Macpherson first printed this “fragment” of an originally Norse poem in the preface to the collected poems of Ossian, which came out in 1773. At this time, he was forced into a defensive position. The Norse piece appears as part of a defence for using English prose to translate what was allegedly Gaelic verse. The poem seems to be concerned with events Macpherson describes in the revised edition of his An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1773), where he recounts how “Harald Harfager, king of Norway, pursuing his enemies, who had taken refuge in the Scottish Isles, reduced the Hebrides and the Orkneys”. [5]  His source for this was the Icelandic historian Thormud Torfæus, who tells us that Orkney and Shetland saw intensive settlements of Norwegian settlers during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. These became a base for Vikings to plunder the coasts of Scotland and Norway. In response the Norwegian King Harald Fair Hair annexed the islands in 875.

2.        As it is entirely characteristic of Macpherson, he obscures the source and provenance of the poem he presents to the public. This makes it suspect. Nevertheless, other travellers to the northern regions of Britain also claimed to record specimens of Norse poetry that had been preserved there. In the year 1774, the Scottish theologian George Low visited Shetland in order to collect material for a description of the country and was able to take down thirty-five stanzas of the Norn Ballad of Hildina from an elder farmer of Foula, Shetland Islands. [6]  In Lockhart’s Life of Scott, a traveller to North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orkney Islands, is said to have carried with him a Gray’s “The Fatal Sisters”, then recently published, which the old inhabitants recognized as a poem they knew as The Enchantresses. [7] 


From the preface to The Poems of Ossian (1773)

1.        The following Poems, it must be confessed, are more calculated to please persons of exquisite feelings of heart, than those who receive all their impressions by the ear. The novelty of cadence, in what is called a prose version, tho’ not destitute of harmony, will not to common readers supply the absence of the frequent returns of rhime. This was the opinion of the Writer himself, though he yielded to the judgment of others, in a mode, which presented freedom and dignity of expression, instead of fetters, which cramp the thought, whilst the harmony of language is preserved. His intention was to publish in verse. The making of poetry, like any other handicraft, may be learned by industry; and he had served his apprenticeship, tho’ in secret, to the muses.

2.        It is, however, doubtful, whether the harmony which these Poems might derive from rhime, even in much better hands than those of the Translator, could atone for the simplicity and energy, which they would lose. The determination of this point shall be left to the readers of this Preface. The following is the beginning of a Poem, translated from the Norse to the Gaëlic language; and, from the latter, transferred into English. The verse took little more time to the writer than the prose; and he himself is doubtful (if he has succeeded in either), which of them is the most literal version.


1.        Where Harold, with golden hair spread o’er Lochlin [8]  his high commands; where, with justice, he ruled the tribes, who sunk, subdued, beneath his sword; abrupt rises Gormal [9]  in snow! The tempests roll dark on his sides, but calm, above his vast forehead appears. White-issuing from the skirt of his storms, the troubled torrents pour down his sides. Joining, as they roar along, they bear the Torno, in foam, to the main.

2.        Grey on the bank, and far from men, half-covered, by ancient pines, from the wind, a lonely pile exalts its head, long-shaken by the storms of the north. To this fled Sigurd, fierce in fight, from Harold the leader of armies, when fate had brightened his spear, with renown; when he conquered in that rude field, where Lulan’s warriors fell in blood, or rose in terror on the waves of the main. Darkly sat the grey-haired chief; yet sorrow dwelt not in his soul. But when the warrior thought on the past, his proud heart heaved again his side: forth flew his sword from its place; he wounded Harold in all the winds,

3.        One daughter, and one only, but bright in form and mild of soul, the last beam of the setting line, remained to Sigurd of all his race. His son, in Lulan’s battle slain, beheld not his father’s flight from the foes. Nor finished seemed the ancient line! The splendid beauty of bright-eyed Fithon, covered still the fallen king with renown. Her arm was white like Gormal’s snow; her bosom whiter than the foam of the main, when roll waves beneath the wrath of the winds. Like two stars were her radiant eyes, like two stars that rise on the deep, when dark tumult embroils the night. Pleasant are the beams aloft, as stately they ascend the skies.

4.        Nor Odin forgot, in aught, the maid. Her form scarce equalled her lofty mind. Awe moved around her stately lips. Heroes loved – but shrunk away in their fears. Yet midst the pride of all her charms, her heart was soft and her soul was kind. She saw the mournful with tearful eyes. Transient darkness arose in her breast. Her joy was in the chase. Each morning, when doubtful light wandered dimly on Lulan’s waves, she roved the resounding woods, to Gormal’s head of snow. Nor moved the maid alone, &c.

The same versified.

Where fair-hair’d Harold, o’er Scandinia reign’d,
And held with justice, what his valour gain’d,
Sevo, in snow, his rugged forehead rears,
And, o’er the warfare of his storms, appears
Abrupt and vast. – White-wandering down his side
A thousand torrents, gleaming as they glide,
Unite below; and pouring through the plain
Hurry the troubled Torono to the main.

Grey, on the bank, remote from human kind,
By aged pines, half sheltered from the wind,
A homely mansion rose, of antique form,
For ages batter’d by the polar storm.
To this fierce Sigurd fled, from Norway’s lord,
When fortune settled, on the warrior’s sword,
In that rude field, where Suecia’s chiefs were slain.
Or forced to wander o’er the Bothnic main.
Dark was his life, yet undisturb’d with woes,
But when the memory of defeat arose
His proud heart struck his side; he graspt the spear,
And wounded Harold in the vacant air.

One daughter only, but of form divine,
The last fair beam of the departing line,
Remain’d of Sigurd’s race. His warlike so
Fell in the shock, which overturn’d the throne,
Nor desolate the house! Fionia’s charms
Sustain’d the glory, which they lost in arms.
White was her arm, as Sevo’s lofty snow,
Her bosom fairer than the waves below,
When heaving to the winds. Her radiant eyes
Like two bright stars, exulting as they rise,
O’er the dark tumult of a stormy night,
And gladd’ning heav’n, with their majestic light.

In nought is Odin to the maid unkind.
Her form scarce equals her exalted mind;
Awe leads her sacred steps where’er they move,
And mankind worship, where they dare not love.
But, mix’d with softness, was the virgin’s pride,
Her heart had feeling, which her eyes deny’d.
Her bright tears started at another’s woes,
While transsient darkness on her soul arose.
The chase she lov’d; when morn, with doubtful beam
Came dinly wandering o’er the Bothnic stream,
On Sevo’s sounding sides, she bent the bow,
And rous’d his forests to his head of snow.
Nor mov’d the maid alone; &c.

Source: The Poems of Ossian. Translated by James Macpherson, rev. ed., vol. 1 (London: W. Strahan; and T. Becket, 1773), 7–12.


[1] James Porter, “Bring Me the Head of James Macpherson”: The Execution of Ossian and the Wellsprings of Folkloristic Discourse”, Journal of American Folklore 114 (2001): 396–435, at 399–400. BACK

[2] Hugh Blair, A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal (London: T. Becket and P.A. De Hondt, 1763), 6–20. BACK

[3] Malcolm Laing, On the Supposed Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, appended to The History of Scotland, vol. 2 (London: T. Cadell et al., 1771), 409–10. BACK

[4] Percy, Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, [v]. BACK

[5] James Macpherson, An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland: Or, an Inquiry into the Origin, Religion, Future State … of the Britons, Scots, Irish and Anglo-Saxons, 3rd ed. (London: T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 1773), 80–81. BACK

[6] George Low, A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland (Kirkwall: William Peace & Son 1879), 108–14. BACK

[7] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1837), 190. BACK

[8] * The Gaëlic name of Scandinavia, or Scandinia. BACK

[9] † The mountains of Sevo. BACK